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Friday, April 23, 2010

Day of the Dead (1986)

Much, much and much has been written about George A. Romero’s acclaimed … of the Dead trilogy, but there’s something at play here that brings fans back to these films and attracts hordes of new horror fans annually. So why shouldn’t I put in my five pence? I myself remember the first time I witnessed Night of the Living Dead on television in the mid 90’s, out in a cottage in the middle of nowhere in West Wales, late at night with some dodgy aerial reception that didn’t hinder the experience in the slightest, in fact it amplified the effect of the movie, as did my location. Luckily my mother was clued up and had friends with an equally fine taste in entertainment, so I was witnessing Dawn of the Dead within days of my first expose to this zombie outbreak.

That tape didn’t move from my VHS player for pretty much my whole stint in High School (except maybe for the occasional viewing of Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Till Dawn or Usual Suspects – hey, it was the mid 90’s, who wasn’t watching them?) causing me nightmares on a nightly basis, it didn’t bug me, they actually made sleep more enjoyable. Living out my own zombie outbreaks in my head on a nightly basis, who could begrudge that?

Finding the final piece of the story didn’t come for a little while longer however, when cable station Bravo finally showed it late one night, needless to say I was ready, very ready. How was this going to live up to Dawn of the Dead? For me that was the pinnacle of horror cinema, if a kid would claim they’d seen the greatest horror movie ever, normally Wes Craven’s Scream during this period, I’d call them a liar to their face: What did they know?

I may only have been 13 but I thought I’d seen the greatest accomplishment in horror history; could the darkest day in horror really beat it? Back then I’d have said no, but now? I’m thinking it did.
The world has been defeated; the walking dead have claimed the world for themselves. Survivors are few and even further between; those who have made it through are gathered in an abandoned military silo. Risking their lives to venture into heart of Florida to look for stragglers, hope of finding further survivors is bleak to say the least. Sarah and fellow scientists, Dr. Fisher and the eccentric Dr. Logan, are conducting various experiments on the undead in hopes of finding a cure or reversal to the outbreak. Captain Rhodes and his men, including Sarah’s boyfriend Miguel, have other designs. They want nothing more than to get free of the silo and attempt to locate other military personnel. John, a helicopter pilot and Bill, the radio operative round out the group as a third party to the scientists and military bodies: keeping themselves to themselves in their self made ‘Rtiz’ cabin.

Rhodes has become a tyrant, claiming the clan as his property he barks orders and makes demands of everyone in the silo; even those not under his command. He’s unhappy that his men are taking fatalities due to the scientists requiring zombie specimens and demands evidence that their work is worth the risk. As anger boils, distrust runs high and hate is the only common bond between the inhabitants; it becomes apparent that being around other humans is just as destructive as being out there with the zombies.

Dr. Logan has a breakthrough with his pet experiment, Bub. A zombie that shows signs of emotion towards his captor and is even docile around other humans, it would appear he’s been taught to behave. Rhodes in none too please by the circus act and threatens to close down the project totally, however a tragic accident sets in motion a chain of horrific events that proves just as deadly as any zombies threat they were trying to protect themselves from.

‘The darkest day of horror the world has even known’ couldn’t have been a more fitting tagline for this movie. The bleak realisation that humans are their own worst enemy (which was touched upon in both Night and Dawn) never makes for an entertaining watch, but Romero ingeniously makes the villains of the piece so fantastically vile that you get some relief in seeing them perish. On the flipside, there’s also a humanity to them, at heart they’re scared little school boys resorting to bullying tactics as a result of severe hardship from their authority figures.

The most human of character however, and the irony isn’t hard to miss, is Bub. There’s so much to praise in Sherman Howard’s performance that it’s pointless discussing it, all you need to know is he’s possibly the most memorable character in all of Romero’s Dead movies. Having Bub as the heart to this otherwise heartless movie is also cause for more darkness, the tone is so bleak that you have to question whether or not humans are worth saving in a world were the lifeless show more care and compassion. Even the charismatic John and Bill show favouritism towards leaving other humans behind and taking care of themselves – though with Rhodes in charge of the show you can hardly blame them.
Much criticism was launched at the unsympathetic characters, this has always bothered me. Romero obviously wanted to do something different here, possibly due to his own observations on Regan-era America? Maybe he was just angry at the fact he had his budget pulled from beneath him and lashed out? Or it could be he just felt that it was the logical progression for the series? Nice guys finish last they say; so where does that leave mankind at the end of the earth? Whatever his reasons were, it was a brave decision that is only just starting to find its rightful place in the horror canon as the classic that it is.

Arrow Video has just released a 25th anniversary edition Blu-ray and it’s a thing of beauty. The film looks fantastic in 1080p resolution, with vivid colours and strong blacks making the final onslaught of blood and guts extra easy on the eye; just not on the stomach. They’ve also gathered plenty of extras for the fans; porting over various features and documentaries from past releases (Anchor Bay US and the previous Arrow DVD release), they’ve chucked tonnes onto a second DVD. On the Blu they’ve carted over a commentary from a previous release and they’ve also commissioned some new features exclusive to this release, by up and comers High Rise Productions.
Joe of the Dead is an in-depth interview with the obnoxious captain Rhodes himself, Joe Pilato. He discusses his roots in acting, how he met George A. Romero and how he came to be cast as one of 80’s cinemas finest villains. He also offers up his thoughts on the great man, a statement he’ll state himself in an entertaining 50 minutes of chin-wagging. Travelogue of the Dead is the second feature and it’s a fun 15 minutes of Joe at screenings of Day of the Dead in Scotland and Ireland meeting his fans and holding entertaining Q&A sessions. If you think he looks a little tipsy during some of these sessions I have it good authority that he actually was, rock and roll, Joe… rock and roll.
If that wasn’t enough we also get a miniature replica UK quad poster, four covers to choose from and a booklet entitled For Every Dawn There Is A Day written by UK journalist Calum Waddell, which features some great insights from cast members and his good self. There’s also a marvellous 24-page comic book produced exclusively for this release, Day of the Dead: Desertion a prequel of sorts that tells the story of the iconic Bub and how he ended up in the situation he finds himself in during the movie. Who could refuse such a loving package?

Purchase the Blu-ray here.
*Please note that the images contained within this review are not taken from the Blu-ray.

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